Tag: public sector pay

Overpaid Feds: Some Market Evidence

In a story titled, “Federal government upping pay, seniority to lure skilled workers from private sector,” the Washington Business Journal notes:

“Government contractors are losing their upper hand in hiring and retaining the best and brightest former feds, as several economic forces under way hint at a potential mass migration from the private sector to public service… .

 ’Government employment is growing more attractive during the economic downturn because it brings job security and the comprehensive benefits that a lot of private sector firms are doing away with,’ said Alan Balutis, director of Cisco Systems Inc.’s Internet Business Solutions Group.”

Aside from adding evidence to my overpaid federal worker thesis, the article suggests trouble for the broader economy if more high-skill workers are running to the government for safe refuge. Federal hiring of the best and brightest imposes an “opportunity cost” on the economy by drawing talented people away from higher-valued activities in the private sector.

It is true that the relative economic harm is less when we are comparing, for example, hiring in-house computer experts to support wasteful farm subsidy activities, or whether we contract-out farm subsidy computer support to, say, Cisco.

So first we should downsize the government to its proper areas of responsibility, thereby releasing hundreds of thousands of smart people to engage in market-based activities. Then we should contract out the remaining core government activities if it makes economic sense.  

Hat Tip: Bill Erickson

Public’s View of Federal Workers

A poll released this week by the Washington Post found that 52 percent of Americans think federal workers are overpaid and 49 percent said they thought federal workers work “less hard” than private sector workers. Also, 75 percent said that federal workers receive better pay and benefits than similar private sector employees.

Post columnist Joe Davidson says the last result in particular left Office of Personnel Management director John Berry “steaming”:

He said he was frustrated that “the Heritage and Cato misinformation campaign has obviously gained traction.” The two Washington, D.C., think tanks have produced widely discussed reports indicating that federal workers are paid too much. A “pretty prolonged misinformation campaign over the last six month leading up to this,” he said, “has worked.”

It’s not surprising that Berry – an individual who has spent his entire career working in government – doesn’t appreciate the fact that regular Americans aren’t enthusiastic about funding generous pay and benefits for federal workers.

While federal workers have received raises in recent years, millions of private sector employees have lost their jobs or have had to take pay and benefit cuts. Joe and Jane Lunchbucket might have less money for their family, but they still have to cough up money to pay for federal raises. If Berry is steamed, many of the nation’s taxpayers are getting burnt to a crisp, as the poll suggests.

An article at GovernmentExecutive.com underscores why Americans think the federal workforce is privileged. Berry’s OPM is “butting heads” with federal worker unions over the ridiculously bureaucratic process of firing employees. Although the article should be read in its entirety to appreciate the eye-glazing details, the fight boils down to OPM’s ability to remove workers who provide false information on official federal documents.

See this Cato essay for more on federal employee pay.

Federal Reserve Bank Pay Soars

The public is concerned that governments are providing excessively generous compensation to their workers. Attention has focused on the high salaries and benefits of federal civilian employees and the often lavish pensions paid to state and local workers.

The compensation policies of the Federal Reserve System also deserve scrutiny. The chart compares average wages of workers in the U.S. private sector and workers in the 12 Federal Reserve Banks. In recent years, the average wage in the Fed’s regional banks has soared, reaching $84,054 in 2009, or 67 percent greater than the private sector average wage of $50,462. Meanwhile, the average wage of the 2,100 workers in the Fed’s Board of Governors in Washington reached $116,030 in 2009. (Federal Reserve Bank data is from this annual report table. Private sector pay is from the BEA, as discussed here).

However, there is a major caveat to this Federal Reserve Bank data. Bank employment has fallen from a stable level before 2002 of about 23,000 to just 17,398 in 2009. One reason is that a major Fed activity—check processing—is rapidly declining due to technological changes. Thus, it is likely that many lost Fed jobs were at relatively lower salary levels.

Nonetheless, despite a 26 percent workforce reduction since 1995, overall Fed Bank compensation costs (wages and benefits) have grown just as fast as the overall economy. Fed compensation costs doubled between 1995 and 2009 as U.S. GDP doubled. The Fed’s total current operating expenses—including compensation, buildings, etc—also doubled during this period. (The Fed’s expenses are from this table in its annual reports. I excluded the new “interest on reserves” expense).

In 2009, total average wages and benefits of Fed Bank workers was $124,974, or more than double the $61,051 average compensation in the U.S. private sector. Fed workers have very generous benefits, including rare perks such as subsidized cafeteria meals.

Let’s look at top end of the Fed’s workforce. In 2009, the average salary of the Fed’s 12 regional presidents was $340,323. In addition, there were 1,183 “officers” in the Fed Bank system with an average salary of $198,960, which is up 94 percent from the average officer salary in 1995.

Also note that the number of these high-paid “officers” in the 12 Fed Banks increased 25 percent between 1995 and 2009 (950 to 1,183), even as the number of overall Fed employees fell 26 percent, as noted. The system is thus becoming very top-heavy.

Federal Reserve annual reports are available online back to 1995. But a 1996 report from the Government Accountability Office discussed the fairly rapid rise in Fed operating expenses during the 1988 to 1994 period, thus indicating that rising costs have been an issue for some time.

How does this affect the general public? Rising costs result in fewer central bank profits being transferred to the U.S. Treasury. That means higher federal deficits or taxes. The GAO explains:

“The Federal Reserve is a self-financing entity that deducts its expenses from its revenues and transfers the remaining amounts to the U.S. Treasury. Because an additional dollar of Federal Reserve cost is an additional dollar of lost federal revenue, the costs of operating the Federal Reserve System are borne by U.S. taxpayers just like the costs of any federal agency.”

As a monopoly immune from competition, the Fed will tend to have a bloated bureaucracy. That makes oversight by Congress very important so that technological efficiencies gained in Fed functions such as check-clearing are passed along to taxpayers, and not gobbled up, for example, by rising numbers of high-paid officers. As the Congress next year looks for ways to reduce the budget deficit, it should look for cost savings at the Fed.

Policymakers might consider whether the Fed really needs 12 regional bank organizations, each with huge fortress-like buildings in cities across the nation. They should ask why the number of high-paid “officers” has increased, even as the number of overall Fed workers has fallen. And they should ask whether Fed employees really need such generous benefit packages—including, for example, both a defined contribution and a defined benefit plan.

I’m not convinced that we need a monopoly central bank. But until policymakers explore alternatives such as free banking, they should try to reduce costs at the Fed as they scour the entire budget for savings.   

(Assistance was provided by intern Michael Nicolini).

A Novel Way of Keeping Fiscal Deficits Under Control?

Having inherited an 8 percent budget deficit from the previous socialist government, the new conservative-liberal government of Slovakia has come up with a novel way of keeping budget deficits under control in the future. Starting in 2011, salaries of government ministers will rise and fall depending on the evolution of the fiscus. Thus, a budget deficit of 5 percent will translate to a 10 percent decrease in salaries, while an (unlikely) budget surplus of 5 percent will translate into a 10 percent rise in salaries, etc. It will be interesting to see if this new measure will truly result in a more responsible fiscal policy in the years to come.

Incidentally, had the United States adopted a similar measure, President Obama’s reported salary of $400,000 in 2009 would have fallen to $320,000 in 2010.